Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book Three: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

A product of a decade of research, Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks gives a face and family to the cells that many scientists and researchers commonly refer to as the HeLa cells.

Taken without Lacks's permission in the '40's, cells from a tumor on her cervix were the first that scientists were able to successfully culture in a lab. At the time, African Americans were fearful of "white man's medicine" - and rightfully so. At the same time as Lacks was being treated for a particularly nasty form of cervical cancer, researchers were purposefully infecting other blacks with syphilis - and not curing them - in order to study the "natural progression of the disease."

After Lacks's death, her family wasn't informed of what her cells were contributing to. When they were finally told that Henrietta's cells were still alive, they didn't understand what it all meant; their lack of education combined with the callousness of researchers led the family to believe that Henrietta had been cloned, that they were all going to get cancer - or that they were owed a LOT of money by Johns Hopkins Hospital.

A very interesting text on both the Lacks family and the field of bioethics, I recommend this one. Skloot's passion for telling the story - the truth, the whole truth (with one noted exception at the request of the family), and nothing but - is admirable and her desire to really get it right is to be praised.

By the end, I admit that I felt guilty for having acquired a used copy; proceeds from sales of the book go to benefit the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, an organization whose mission is providing scholarships or grants to cover medical treatment to members of the Lacks family or to those who "have made, or be the descendant of someone who has made, a significant contribution to scientific research as a research subject, including those who have unwillingly or unknowingly contributed biological materials for research."

Three down, 49 to go to reach my goal for the year!


  1. Heheh I'm sure you'll catch up! The HP books are bigger than the ones I've been reading, anyway. :)